“Saint Frances,” the new dramedy directed by Alex Thompson and written by Kelly O’Sullivan, is 2020’s best movie to date: a humorous and honest look at how people learn to courageously express their complicated feelings in a world comfortable to keep them bottled up. Roger Ebert described the movies as “empathy machines”; this is an empathy steamroller.
O’Sullivan plays Bridget, a 34-year-old with not much to show for her life aside from a serving job, one-night stands and awkward conversations with the kind of men who spew their existential crises onto anyone who will (regretfully) listen. One of those one-night stands, with the lovably doofy Jace (Max Lipchitz), turns into an accidental pregnancy, which turns into an abortion. Around the same time, Bridget’s offered an opportunity: a summer job nannying for Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), a mischievous, wickedly smart 6-year-old.
Motherhood, growing up, discovering what the hell “success” should look like — it’s a lot for one person’s mind to take on in three months.
Through Thompson’s direction and O’Sullivan’s screenplay, “Saint Frances” can be summed up in one word: messy. The handheld cinematography, the lens smudges on the sides of the screen, Bridget’s decades-old car with the door to the gas cap missing — these elements quickly build a portrait of an everyday woman struggling to get her life together without unnecessary exposition.
Bridget’s playful misanthropy comes from the school of “Daria.” For as much as she would like the things people use to define success — a husband, kids, a fancy job — she won’t let those expectations diminish her independence nor the way she’d like to achieve those accomplishments. O’Sullivan delivers the right balance of acerbic shell and tender center, cracking her armor at just the right moments. She reminds me of Brie Larson’s performance in “United States of Tara” or Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird.”
Those characters are high schoolers, much younger than Bridget, but “Saint Frances” doesn’t equate age with emotional maturity. For as stunted as Bridget feels comparing herself to other 34-year-olds, she can be complacent with her life experience. Dating the younger Jace, who lives in a bachelor pad with a video-gaming roommate, she can ignore the inner pressures to kickstart her adult life. That’s not to say Bridget fully embraces playing a 20-something; she scoffs at Jace’s attempts to get them to share their feelings about the abortion in an “emotions journal.” That kind of behavior, she says is for “millennials.” There’s a generational gap in regard to attitudes towards self-evaluating one’s mental health, and because Bridget doesn’t quite fit in the Gen X or millennial camps, she’s in tune with her inner angst but won’t embrace the tools or attitudes necessary to properly address it.
One of Frances’s mothers, Maya (Charin Alvarez), stays at home with the family’s new baby. With a needy baby and rambunctious kindergartner, Maya’s stress develops into postpartum depression. There’s little discussion about it, but from one look of her exhausted, paralyzed face, one can tell something’s wrong. Alvarez’s body language often says everything necessary; it’s hard for my heart not to go out to her, seeing how she suffers quietly through this depression.
For Frances’s other mother, Annie (Lily Mojekwu), stress resolves itself through a stern, icy demeanor. She often pushes people away. Throughout the film, Annie is partially seen as an antagonistic force, and given she’s the only Black character, it irks me to see the movie dip into the “angry Black woman” stereotype. This resolves differently than a soap opera storyline, but the optics are still suspect.
Many of the three women’s interactions revolve around how they’re expected, either by internal or external pressures, to behave or present themselves. Thompson often shoots these scenes with a series of subjective camera moves that put us in their point of view. I often felt my stomach churn experiencing their tensions secondhand.
Before we enter adulthood, are we equipped to handle our emotions, to courageously own our life choices against petty criticism? I don’t think we are. In this regard, I think the zoomers (Do the kids call themselves zoomers?) have us beat. The idea that one needs to present a facade of a perfect life to the rest of the world is something “Saint Frances” laughs at with shock and honesty. (If you think periods and public breastfeeding are subjects that should be softened with flowery metaphor and holier-than-thou modesty, this movie will delightfully refuse to placate you.)
Why is Frances a saint? I think she expresses the qualities most people wish they did. She’s endlessly curious, completely unafraid to share what she knows. She stands up for herself, but is also willing to respond kindly to unkind people. There’s definitely a risk that Frances comes off too precocious, mimicking a grown-up’s words, but Edith-Williams’s energy is so bubbly, so infectious, that I don’t dare think it’ll be a problem for most. Given Bridget is a confused adult with a fear of maturity, I think Frances, a confident girl who soaks up adult knowledge like a sponge, is a good foil.
Given what I’ve written, I imagine it won’t take rocket science to figure out how the movie wraps up. I won’t dare spoil it, so to close this out, I think I’ll bring it back to Roger Ebert. (Steal from the best, right?) When receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he said “The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.”
“Saint Frances” teaches us not only to be more decent to each other, but also to ourselves. What a great gift from a great movie. “Saint Frances” won the the SXSW 2019 Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature and the Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Voice.
“Saint Frances” opens in Los Angeles on Friday, March 6 and will be followed by a national rollout. You can check for updates here.
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Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.